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Obama resets Middle East compass
25.03.13 12:02 Middle East
By M K Bhadrakumar

The spin given to United States President Barack Obamas visit to Israel last week was that it could be a kiss-and-make-up trip aimed at improving Obamas personal chemistry with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. If so, the mission succeeded. The surprise element came dramatically at the fag end of the visit just as Obama was about to get into the presidential jet at Tel Aviv airport on Friday.

Right there on the tarmac from a makeshift trailer, he dialed up Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and after a brief exchange of pleasantries he handed the phone to Netanyahu, who promptly went on to do what he had adamantly refused to do for the past two years - render a formal apology over the killing of nine Turks in 2010 who were traveling in a flotilla on a humanitarian mission to the Gaza enclave.

This is probably the first time in Israels history that it apologized to a foreign country for a sin committed.

The Gaza incident ripped apart Turkish-Israeli relations. The breakdown in ties with Turkey left Israel stranded and helpless in a region caught up in the throes of an upheaval it has never known before. The alliance with Turkey is of vital importance to Israel.

In his statement welcoming the Turkish-Israeli reconciliation, US Secretary of State John Kerry noted that this will help Israel meet the many challenges it faces in the region and a full normalization will enable Tel Aviv and Ankara to work together to advance their common interests.

But the telephone conversation at Tel Aviv airport was a premeditated theatrical act, which Obama wanted the entire region to witness. It carried much symbolism that the captain was taking the US ship in a big arc into new directions.

The senior Turkish editor Murat Yetkin cited high-ranking sources to disclose that Washington had approached Ankara a few weeks ago with the proposal that Obama wished to work on a rapprochement between Erdogan and Netanyahu and hoped to utilize his Israeli visit to that end. Yetkin wrote:

As Ankara said they could accept the good offices of the US to have an agreement with Israel, based on an apology, the diplomacy started. Before the start of Obamas visit on March 20, diplomatic drafts about the terms of a possible agreement started to go back and forth between Ankara and Jerusalem under the auspices of US diplomacy.
Why is Turkish-Israeli normalization so terribly important for Obama - and, equally, for Erdogan and Netanyahu? The answer is to be found in the testimony given by the head of US European Command and the North Atlantic Treaty Organizations top military commander, Admiral James Stavridis, before the US Senate Armed Services Committee last Monday on the eve of Obamas departure from Washington for Israel.

Stavridis advised the US lawmakers that a more aggressive posture by the US and its allies could help break the stalemate in Syria. As he put it, My personal opinion is that would be helpful in breaking the deadlock and bringing down the [Syrian] regime.

The influential US senator John McCain pointedly queried Stavridis about NATOs role in any intervention in Syria. Stavridis replied that the NATO is preparing for a range of contingencies. We [NATO] are looking at a wide range of operations, and we are prepared if called upon to be engaged [as] we were in Libya, he said.

Stavridis went on to explain that the NATO Patriot missiles now deployed in Turkey ostensibly for the sake of defending Turkish airspace have the capability also to attack Syrian air force in that countrys air space and that any such a NATO operation would be a powerful disincentive for the Syrian regime.

Tell-tale signs

Equally significant is that the NATO warships of the Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 [SNMGI], which arrived in the Eastern Mediterranean in late February, visited the Turkish naval base of Aksaz (where Turkeys Southern Task Group maintains special units such as underwater attack) last fortnight en route to joining last week the US Strike Group consisting of the Aircraft Carrier USS Dwight D Eisenhower and escorts.

The SNMGI forms part of the NATO Response Force, which is permanently activated and is held at high readiness in order to respond to security challenges.

Thus, the picture that emerges - added to other recent tell-tale signs - is that a Western military intervention in Syria could well be in the making. Obama is moving carefully, and the commitment of US troops on the ground in Syria is just out of the question. But the US and NATO (and Israel) can give valuable air cover and can launch devastating missile attacks on the Syrian governments command centers.

The Western powers would rather focus on eliminating President Bashar al-Assad rather than physically occupy the country. If ground forces need to be deployed inside Syria at some stage, Turkey can undertake that mission, being a Muslim country belonging to NATO.

This is where the Turkish-Israeli reconciliation comes into play. A close coordination between Turkey and Israel at the operational level can be expected to pulverize the Syrian regime from the north and south simultaneously.

But the revival of the Turkish-Israeli strategic axis has major implications for regional security. Erdogan has thoroughly milked the last ounce, politically speaking, out of his grandstanding against Israel and Zionism through the past two-year period to bolster his image in the Arab Street.

Erdogan lost no time to brag that the Israeli apology signaled Turkeys growing regional influence. We are at the beginning of a process of elevating Turkey to a position so that it will again have a say, initiative and power, as it did in the past, he said alluding to Turkeys ambitions to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians.

He announced that he plans to visit the Palestinian territories, including Gaza, next month. But, having said that, Erdogan also can do with some timely help from Israel. The point is, he is currently pushing for a negotiated deal with the Kurdish militants belonging to the PKK. Last week, the PKK leader who is incarcerated in Turkey, Abdullah Ocalan, called for the vacation of the Kurdish militia from Turkish soil.

Turbulent times

Turkey has traditionally depended on Israel to provide it with intelligence on the Kurdish militant groups. Quite obviously, Erdogan hopes to revive the Turkish-Israeli intelligence sharing, which would work to Turkeys advantage.

The Turkish-Israeli coordination in Kurdistan could buy peace for Turkish armed forces, which has been facing a surge in the Kurdish insurgency, and in turn the Pashas to concentrate on the Syrian front. At a broader level, Turkish-Israeli reconciliation will also help NATOs future role in the Middle East as a net provider of security in the Levant. Massive energy reserves have been discovered in the Levant Basin in the recent years.

NATOs efforts in the past four to five years to coordinate with Israel in the Eastern Mediterranean as a partner country hit the bump of the Turkish-Israeli rift. Turkey doggedly blocked NATOs dealings with Israel and even prevented the alliance NATO from inviting Israel to its gala summit in Chicago.

Suffice to say, Turkish-Israeli reconciliation impacts the overall strategic balance in the Middle East. Turkish-Israeli collaboration at the security and military level has profound implications for the Iran question. Turkey sees Iran as a rival in the Middle East, while Israel regards Iran as an existential threat. Both estimate that Irans surge poses challenge to their regional ambitions. Thus, the Turkish-Israeli axis is destined to play a crucial role if the US ever decides to attack Iran.

In sum, Obamas mediatory mission to Israel and his stunning success in healing the Turkish-Israeli rift resets the compass of Middle Eastern politics. The American regional policies are returning to their pristine moorings riveted on the perpetuation of its hegemony in the Middle East with Turkey and Israel acting as the key local agents.

While in Israel, Obama didnt show any sense of urgency about the Middle East peace process. Indeed, turbulent times lie ahead for the Middle East.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including Indias ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

 
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